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2023 Northwestern football position preview: Wide receivers

NU looks for transfers to step up and lead a new-look receiving corps.

Syndication: Arizona Republic Joe Rondone / USA TODAY NETWORK


Returning Starters: Bryce Kirtz (R-Sr.), Jacob Gill (R-So.)

Key Losses: Malik Washington (Virginia), Donny Navarro III (NFL UDFA), Wayne Dennis Jr. (Howard), Genson Hooper Price (Coastal Carolina)

Returners: Raymond Niro III (R-Sr.), Calvin Johnson II (R-So.), Donnie Gray (R-So.), Reggie Fleurima (R-Fy.), Preston Bacon (R-Sr.), Jack Kennedy (R-Sr.)

Newcomers: Cam Johnson (R-Sr., Arizona State), A.J. Henning (Sr., Michigan), Ricky Ahumaraeze (Fy.), Frank Covey IV (Fy.)

Like the running back room, the Northwestern receiving corps has lost its most productive member in Malik Washington. After managing to turn in a somewhat productive season catching passes from a number of different underwhelming quarterbacks, Washington entered the transfer portal and left for UVA this spring.

The ‘Cats were not productive through the air as a team; their 2,524 yards were 10th in the Big Ten. Washington accounted for 27% of those air yards by himself, racking up 694 in total on 65 receptions (also a team high). He didn’t find himself in the end zone particularly often, scoring just one TD in 2022, but he provided a stable target for Ryan Hilinski, Brendan Sullivan and others.

Northwestern also will be without Evan Hull and Donny Navarro III, its second and third-most productive pass-catchers last season. That’s a lot of production to replace, but there is a glass half-full perspective to be had. Wide receiver is a position at which NU actually does have incoming talent, largely in the form of already established college ball players who transferred to Evanston.

Cam Johnson, from Arizona State, spent four years at Vanderbilt before joining the Sun Devils last season and transferring to NU for 2023. The best campaign of his career was 2020, when he amassed 545 yards on 56 receptions. Last year, he had just 84 yards, but Arizona State had other weapons to carry the load. Johnson should get an opportunity at Northwestern to be a key cog in the offense, and the hope is that he can develop into a consistent target for quarterback Ben Bryant.

The other transfer joining the room is A.J. Henning from Michigan. Henning excelled for the Wolverines mostly in the return game, but he was at Michigan. It’s tough to get reps at receiver when you have to contend with the kind of talent they have in Ann Arbor. Henning is a shifty, speedy receiver, a skillset that might allow the ‘Cats to do some different things offensively. He should also be a factor as a returner just as he was in the blue and gold.

Key player: Bryce Kirtz

Johnson and Henning are inarguably important for Northwestern this year. It was tempting to tab Henning as the “key player” here because his athleticism combined with the opportunity he’s being presented with could spell big things.

But Bryce Kirtz also matters for this Northwestern offense. The ultimate question is whether he is capable of being more than just the 212-yard receiver he was last year. The target share should be higher for Kirtz, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll take advantage of it.

He has a leg up in experience on virtually everyone else in the room, having completed three whole seasons at Northwestern. If Kirtz can be a true factor for the ‘Cats, then all of the sudden the receiving group as a whole starts to take shape and gives Bryant more weapons to throw to.

Big question: How much does it matter that Ben Bryant, Cam Johnson and A.J. Henning are all transfers?

You can’t fault Northwestern for being active in the transfer portal. It had to be. Otherwise, the ‘Cats would be entering the season with no clear answer at the sport’s most important position, and very few options for whoever they trotted out there to throw the ball to. Enter Bryant, Johnson and Henning who (hopefully) will provide answers in those spots.

However, NUs offense is heavily reliant on all three working out, and none of them have ever taken a snap in a Northwestern uniform. Granted, the whole offense should be different under David Braun, so everyone in the locker room will be learning. But the quarterback-wide receiver relationship is an important one, and these guys have no established chemistry.

The hope will be that the talent wins out. Bryant is the most promising quarterback the ‘Cats have had in the past couple of years, and Johnson and Henning both possess the tools to take massive leaps forward in their college careers at Northwestern. Assuming they can develop a rapport with Bryant early, everything should be fine.

Depth Chart (according to

2023 WR Depth Chart (per Ourlads)

Position Starter Second String Third Spring
Position Starter Second String Third Spring
X-Receiver Cam Johnson Jacob Gill Donnie Gray
Z-Receiver Bryce Kirtz Preston Bacon Reggie Fleurima
Slot A.J. Henning Ray Niro III Calvin Johnson II